washingtonpost.com
Books: Tempting Faith

David Kuo
Author, former White House official
Wednesday, October 25, 2006 1:00 PM

Former White House official David Kuo was online Wednesday, Oct. 25, at 1 p.m. to discuss his book, "Tempting Faith," and his assertion that the Bush administration manipulated religious groups for political gain.

David Kuo served as special assistant to the president and deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He is now a Contributing Editor of Beliefnet .

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Kensington, Md.: Between the revelations in your book and the House leadership choosing to protect their power over protecting pages, the evangelical voters must be pretty disgusted with the GOP right now. Are they feeling taken for granted? What does the GOP need to do to win them back?

David Kuo: Thanks for this question and all the questions. I am going to try and get to as many as possible.

I hope that evangelical voters are very, very wary. When I got my Post this morning and saw the front page article about the White House put up a tent yesterday to invite in a bunch of conservative and Christian radio hosts, I felt a bit ill. I wasn't shocked, of course, just amazed by how increasingly blatant this seduction of Christian voters has become.

They should feel like they are being used... because they are being used. In a way this isn't surprising. Politicians will appeal to any group to get their votes -- from bass fisherman to Baptists. But the way that the White House has presented President Bush as a pastor-in-chief is deeply disturbing and threatens to rob Christians of their objective voice in speaking truth to power.

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Saint Paul, Minn.: Your former boss has made the circuit to refute your book, with the most-used arrow in his quiver being that you were complementary of the administration in your resignation letter. How did you make the transition in opinion from that letter to the book?

David Kuo: I found it very funny actually. I have a copy of the letter in front of me and the White House chose to leave out several things. For starters, they didn't read the entire letter. It begins by saying that everything we accomplished was started under the Initiative's founder, John DiIulio. And they didn't quote the context of what I said. When I said that I was proud of what the Initiative has accomplished, I conspicuously did not say all that the "White House" had accomplished. You see, I make a big distinction in my book between what the dedicated and compassionate people in the small Faith-Based Office accomplished and the massive indifference of the West Wing. One of the funny things the White House has done in response to the book is to try and make my criticisms appear to be about the office... they weren't. The criticisms were of the White House as a whole.

All that being said, the transition was a challenging one. I took a year off from everything after leaving the White House. I spent time as a professional bass fisherman (no joke but too long to explain here -- makes sense in context of book, trust me) and to pray and think and reflect. At no time did I figure I would be writing anything about the White House.

However, by early 2005 when I saw the continued failed promises (and deception) coming from the administration about "compassion" I felt compelled to write and speak. Thanks for the question.

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Boulder, Colo.: Do you believe that your book is resonating with the religious right, in that they will seriously consider taking a break from politics?

David Kuo: I am very hopeful that is what is happening. I truly believe that many, many evangelicals are reexamining their role in politics and reexamining how much of their time and money they should be spending on these increasingly nasty and bitter campaigns. Christians are involved in politics because they want a better country and long for a good country for their kids. I think that more and more they wonder if that might not be better accomplished by making politics ever more secondary to living out Jesus' commands to just serve those around you.

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Washington, D.C.: Unlike many of Bush's opponents, I believe his professions of faith are genuine, and that religion is a central part of his life. But I also believe that if he were to spell out his beliefs in detail -- something he's always avoided -- many of his admirers would be shocked to discover that he's far less socially conservative than they've allowed themselves to imagine. Can you offer any insight as to whether I'm right or wrong on this?

David Kuo: Great question and one that I cannot ultimately answer. His faith is obviously real and so is his deep personal compassion for other people who are hurting. But his religious image is so tightly controlled for the evangelical market it is amazing -- information about his daily devotional reading (or even that he does it) is used to help reassure Christians that he is one of them. That is just kind of weird.

He isn't alone in using his faith, however, look at recent comments by John Kerry about the increasing importance of his faith. It is as if this idea has reached maturity that if you want to be President of the United States you must also be pastor-in-chief.

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Alexandria, Va.: I've heard people in my church argue that you can't be both a Christian and a Democrat. Is this attitude prevalent among evangelicals and do you think this concept originated in the minds of Republican political strategists?

Thank you and God bless.

David Kuo: It is a very common belief and one I first discovered circa 1990 when I started attending a church in Alexandria too. It represents this amazing distortion of Jesus' Gospel -- literally, the good news that Jesus was raised from the dead and that his followers could be as well -- with a particular political agenda. It reduces Jesus to some lobbyist or political consultant and that really isn't a very good thing.

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Rockville, Md.: So some staffers mock the people they work with? We live in a world of the "Daily Show" and nobody is respectful at some levels. But I don't see it as being news. Just more partisan moves to my perception. And, surprise, it is election season.

David Kuo: You know, that is one of the things I say in the prologue to my book: "Throughout nearly 20 years in politics, I have seen the tender seduction of well-meaning Christian leaders and their followers by politicians parched for votes but apathetic about these Christians' faith. On the one hand this shouldn't be surprising: politicians are all about courting (or seducing) voters so that they can win. On the other hand, Christian leaders are supposed to be putting Jesus above and before all things..."

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Loch Lomond, Calif.: You woke up to the fact that Bush was "in on the joke" of using the so-called Religious Right. Can you now see the delusion of religion?

David Kuo: This is what I have found to be the most true -- Jesus's promise that "I have come to give life and give it in full." In Jesus, I believe, life is to be found.

Politics is easy. God is challenging. Politics allows us to believe and feel like we are making some huge difference. But God, who cannot be seen, requires something different of us. He requires that we quietly, silently, secretly draw near to him and allow him to transform us from the inside out. Maybe so many people are choosing politics over God because they realize how much God really does demand of them.

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Memphis, Tenn.: I echo your points entirely on the bold overtures the White House made yesterday to conservative columnists. At this morning's WH briefing the matter did not get a single question from the reporters. What do you think accounts for this oversight by journalists. Are they afraid to go there on issues that they think will be unwelcome by the President?

David Kuo: I really don't think journalists understand what is going on and I think they have been so intimidated by the relentless barrage against them that they are just part of the "liberal media conspiracy" that they no longer feel like they can ask those questions or make those inquiries.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think it is a move in the right direction for faith-based groups to be receiving federal funding at all -- is the idea to eventually phase out government social service provision and to have local organizations take up this work on the ground?

David Kuo: I do, I absolutely do. I think small faith-based and secular groups working at the neighborhood level are so vital to providing care that they deserve so much help.

One organization for instance, here in D.C., is a tiny place called the Unique Learning Center. There, one woman has dedicated her life to helping kids one family at a time. Groups like Unique are rescuing countless lives and deserve so much help.

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Washington, D.C.: Based on your experience, should religious social conservatives look elsewhere other than politics to pursue their convictions?

David Kuo: I think that for a season that is what they should do. In the book I advocate a "fast" for Christians from politics. Let me begin by saying that I believe Christians should obviously vote and Christian political leaders should stay in office and such things. But for the grassroots, those people out there who have been lead into thinking that just giving a bit more time and a bit more money to this politician or that one, they should take a step back and so should the whole Christian political industry. Instead of spending hundreds of millions on politics, spend that money on the poor for a season. There is much more to this and it can be found in the book and another snippet at www.beliefnet.com where there is a feature on the book and I am also starting a blog called J-walking - www.beliefnet.com/blogs/jwalking.

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Los Angeles: Your book has been a revelation to me as Christian and a loyal Republican. Why did it take so long for this administration's attitude towards us to be revealed? I am shocked.

David Kuo: Well, I don't think people really wanted you to know. I don't mean this in some vast conspiratorial sense but in the sense that so many people have so much invested in the continued milking of Christian to support the political habit that getting any message like this out there is considered a sort of heresy (or that is what people have said I have committed).

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Hamilton, N.Y.: Hi David,

Do you consider yourself a conservative? Why/why not? Thanks!

David Kuo: I suppose if someone were to go up and down the list of every issue out there I would end up further on the "conservative" side than the liberal one. More and more, however, I want to talk less and less about individual political issues. I am more interested in the spiritual consequences of political seduction -- heck, I know of what I speak, I've experienced those consequences in my life.

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Bahama, N.C.: I have yet to hear you directly answer the questions of many of us who believe George Bush uses (or misuses) his purported religious faith solely for political purposes...that, in fact, he has little if any genuine Christian compassion for the poor or anyone else. What do you think?

David Kuo: Thanks for the question.

I have no doubt at all about the President's personal compassion for the poor. None. He speaks so movingly and eloquently about these compassion issues. He speaks as one humble and moved by faith and not one trying to lord that faith over others. But the simple fact is that the White House hasn't even delivered a whisper of the promised funds to help the poor. That is simply wrong.

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Washington, D.C.: I am a lifelong partisan Democrat who has been guided in every political cause I worked on and supported by my unabiding faith. Your and your book are a breath of fresh air, for I have recoiled as I watched first democracy then faith be spoiled by this corruption and lust for power.

My question to you has to do with the leaders of the far right, the Dobson's, Falwell's, etc. Aren't they ultimately to blame for selling out to power brokers? The White House may have used them, but didn't they make a deal with the Devil, so to speak?

David Kuo: It is dangerous to make any blanket statement of all leaders of any particular movement or cause. That being said, there are clearly those people who have been seduced by power's proximity. White House power is an amazing thing -- a powerful thing. It is much like I imagine the "ring of power" in Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy that has the promise of much good but the ultimate and inevitable consequence of a loss of soul. One prominent Christian leader was recently quoted saying he would follow a particular White House staffer "off the cliff." Enough said?

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Red State : Thank you for your courage to write this book. Please give us your thoughts on the differences between the Republican party elite and the Democrat party elite. Shortly after the 2004 elections, there was discussion that the leaders of these two groups were more similar than different.

David Kuo: Wow, fascinating question. I'm not sure I am really capable of answering it based on expert knowledge, but if you want my opinion (as I suppose all of this is anyway) here it is:

I think the Republican elite are most concerned with fiscal issues and I think the Democrat elite are most concerned with fiscal issues and I think the only difference between the two is their approach.

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Where Dogs Bite Men: The thesis of your book isn't exactly a revelation, you know?

David Kuo: I know! It is actually about 2000 years old (at least) - thesis is simply this - you can't serve two masters...

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Philadelphia: Did you ever have the opportunity to meet or work with John Dilulio? What are your impression of him, if you have any?

David Kuo: He is a dear friend and a genius and has a heart like Mother Teresa's. Other than that I don't think much of him at all.

Thank you all for your questions - I wish I could have gotten to them all. I hope we will have a chance to chat again. David

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